This week’s poem is chosen to commemorate Remembrance Day. It is “Paris, November 11, 1918” by May Wedderburn Cannan.
But I saw Love go lonely down the years,May Wedderburn Cannan (1893—1973)
And when I drank, the wine was salt with tears.
Poem 241. Paris, November 11, 1918
Down on the boulevards the crowds went by, The shouting and the singing died away, And in the quiet we rose to drink the toasts, Our hearts uplifted to the hour, the Day: The King—the Army—Navy—the Allies— England—and Victory.—
And then you turned to me and with low voice (The tables were abuzz with revelry), “I have a toast for you and me”, you said, And whispered “Absent”, and we drank Our unforgotten Dead. But I saw Love go lonely down the years, And when I drank, the wine was salt with tears.
This is a short poem, but its power struck me immediately I read it: the joyous celebrations of the first stanza being tempered by the sadness implicit in the second.
The first stanza is celebratory with rejoicing crowds and toasts drunk to those deserving of the honour in the eyes of those celebrating. It is easy to picture the Paris boulevards alive that night in 1918 with jubilant throngs of people drinking and cheering. There is a video on YouTube that gives a really good idea of the scenes.
The second stanza turns to the sorrow felt by those who remember and toast their “absent friends”—the wine soured by the salt taste of the tears of those that are left to grow old (to paraphrase Laurence Binyon’s war poem “For the Fallen”) and remember their fallen lovers, brothers, fathers and sons.
I like it because the tremendously ebullient note of the first stanza is tempered so cleverly by the reminder of the fallen and their heartbroken mourners in the second. It reminds us that for every reveller in triumph, there are those that taste the bitter dregs of sorrow and bereavement.
- Watch footage of the scenes in Paris on Armistice Day on YouTube.